I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Mapping "Kingdom Gain" Through School Vouchers

As I did in my last post, let's start with some quotes from our incoming Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and her husband Dick, caught in a moment of candor:
However, the DeVoses also say public schools have “displaced” the church in terms of importance.

“The church — which ought to be in our view far more central to the life of the community — has been displaced by the public school as the center for activity, the center for what goes on in the community,” Dick DeVos says.

“It is certainly our hope that churches would continue, no matter what the environment — whether there’s government funding some day through tax credits, or vouchers, or some other mechanism or whatever it may be — that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education," he said. "We just can think of no better way to rebuild our families and our communities.”

When asked why they don’t just spend their time — and money — funding Christian schools, Betsy DeVos said they want to reform the whole system to bring “greater Kingdom gain.” 
“We could give every single penny we have, everybody in this room could give every single penny they had, and it wouldn’t begin to touch what is currently spent on education every year in this country and what is in many cases … not well spent."
Now, this is not usually the argument for school vouchers that you will hear from the reformy types who push them; in fact, DeVos herself will usually sell vouchers under the free-market arguments of Milton Friedman and other pseudo-libertarians. In fact, in his best-selling 1980 book Free To Choose, Friedman argues that a voucher system that only applied to schools that weren't connected to churches would be "far superior to the present system." (p.164)*

There's scant little evidence that Friedman was right about the superior performance of these schools. And he made another prediction about vouchers in his 1962 best-seller, Capitalism and Freedom:
Our problem today is not to enforce conformity; it is rather that we are threatened with an excess of conformity. Our problem is to foster diversity, and the alternative [school vouchers] would do this far more effectively than a nationalized school system. (p. 97)
The desire for "Kingdom gain" expressed by the DeVoses isn't to be found in the advocacy of Friedman and his acolytes; then again, DeVos usually sells vouchers under the same free-market premise, as she did in this 2013 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable.
MRS. DEVOS: Well, I’ve never been more optimistic. Today there are about 250,000 students in 33 publicly funded, private-choice programs in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The movement’s growth is accelerating. Within the last year, the number of students in educational-choice programs grew by about 40,000. In 2012, we saw new programs in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Mississippi, and New Hampshire, and expanded programs in Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. In 2011, Indiana passed a major new statewide voucher program, which is only in its second academic year and is already enrolling nearly 10,000 children. We conducted polling in five states, and found educational choice enjoyed enormous popularity, especially among Latinos. 
This confluence of events is forcing people to take note, particularly because of the public’s awareness that traditional public schools are not succeeding. In fact, let’s be clear, in many cases, they are failing. That’s helped people become more open to what were once considered really radical reforms—reforms like vouchers, tax credits, and education savings accounts.
No talk of "Kingdom gain" here. Why, you'd almost think DeVos has learned to keep her true agenda quiet, for fear of alienating people -- particularly her allies in the cause on the political left -- who value the principle of separating church and state...

As I noted in my last post: when the Supreme Court, in Zelman v Simmons-Harris, found vouchers for religious schools to be constitutional -- in a tight 5-4 vote -- David Souter wrote a dissent that took the majority to task for engaging in "formalism." What he meant was that the Court could pretend that the Ohio voucher scheme in question was neutral when it came to religion, but the practical reality was that the religious schools completely dominated the program.

Is that still the case? As a practical matter, would public monies flow to religious schools -- specifically, Christian schools tasked with promoting "Kingdom gain" -- if a Trump/Pence/DeVos voucher program were implemented across the nation? 

Let's go to the data. As in my last post, I've matched state-level lists of private schools that accept vouchers/scholarships/whatever to the 2011-12 Private School Universe Survey (PSS) from the National Center for Educational Statistics. I concentrate here on some of the nation's largest school "choice" programs" Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. My matches aren't perfect: there are time differences between some of the lists and the 2011-12 database, and not all schools on the voucher-eligible lists could be matched to NCES data. Still, we should be able to get a fairly good picture as to whether religious schools predominate in these programs.

Let's start with the Milwaukee, WI area, home of one of the country's largest and oldest voucher programs:

There are a few nonsectarian schools, three affiliated with Judaism, and a couple of Islamic schools. But the vast majority of voucher schools in Milwaukee are Catholic or affiliated with some other type of Christianity.

Here's greater Indianapolis, IN:

Within Marion County, I could only match one school that wasn't affiliated with some form of Christianity.

Here's Cleveland and Akron, OH:

Catholic and other Christian schools overwhelmingly dominate the "choices" of voucher schools in Northeast Ohio.

Here's greater Colombus, OH:

There are only two nonsectarian voucher schools in Franklin County, OH.

Cincinnati, OH:

There are very few non-Christian voucher schools to "choose" from in greater Cincinnati, OH.

New Orleans, LA:

Only two voucher schools in greater New Orleans, LA are not affiliated with Christianity.

Finally -- and this really is an interesting contrast -- here's Washington, D.C.:

The DC "Scholarship" program has been in flux for years, a victim of mismanagement and corruption. But it seems to be the exception when it comes to offering nonsectarian schools as "choices." That said...

Most of the nation's school voucher programs are overwhelmingly dominated by Christian schools.

There is very little evidence that nonsectarian schools will play a significant role in any expansion of vouchers under the Trump-Pence-DeVos administration. Instead, school voucher money will almost certainly flow inordinately toward Christian institutions.

This will be a radical shift in public policy. By using "choice" as its pretext, federal and state governments will be diverting billions of taxpayer dollars, used previously to support public education, toward Christian churches -- all advancing DeVos's goal of "Kingdom gain."

Everyone OK with that? More to come...

"Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God." - Matthew, 19:24.

* Friedman also makes a bizarre argument that public schools "...teach religion, too -- not a formal, theistic religion, but a set of values and beliefs that constitute a religion in all but name." This kind of facile, trite argument is worthy of a Fox News screaming head, and not an eminent economic scientist.

The plain truth is that Friedman was a remarkably shallow thinker on educational "choice"; he largely based his voucher advocacy on his authority as a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and not on any empirical evidence. I've got some formal work coming soon that delves into this further; stand by...


Aside from the 2011-12 NCES-PSS, here are the sources for eligible schools in various voucher programs:

Again: the matches are hardly perfect, the data is dirty, and it's survey data. Caveat regressor.

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